“A little sugar in my bowl” By Umberto Salvagnin [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

January 30, 2017; National Law Review

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding practical solutions to a wide range of issues spanning global warming to racial equity, is petitioning the FDA to rethink how it classifies “healthy” foods. Given the data on the damaging effects sugar has on the body, the UCS has asked that the FDA consider “disqualifying levels” of added sugar.

Currently, foods that carry the “healthy” label are evaluated based on “total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.” Total sugar content is included on nutrition labels, but a food can be high in added sugar, yet low in saturated fat, and still be considered “healthy.” For instance, many fruit yogurts are given the healthy label due to their low fat content, yet they are high in added sugar.

The timing of this petition is interesting, as just two months ago the International Life Sciences Institute, coincidentally funded by the sugar industry, released a controversial report indicating that the correlation between sugar consumption and poor health was inconclusive, opening the public’s eyes to the conflict of interest ever present in the food industry. Fortunately, the FDA already had plans to enforce a new nutrition label that indicates not only total grams of sugar, but also points out grams of added sugar. This label is set to be enforced on most packaged foods starting in July 2018.

Given this, the question then becomes whether there is a need for disqualifying levels of sugar content in foods labeled “healthy” given the revised nutrition label. While the sugar industry argues this is enough, UCS’s answer is a resounding “yes!” The petition filed by the UCS says, “It sends dangerous mixed messages to consumers for guidance and nutrition standards on the one hand to limit added sugars and yet to continue to allow food companies to make health claims on sugar-rich processed foods.”

The “disqualifying levels” of sugar actually complement the new nutrition label based on how consumers shop. When comparing two products, the nutrition label is often used to gauge how healthy one product is in relation to the other. However, when picking up an individual product and not comparing it to a similar product, the labels on the front of the package can alert a customer to the health quality of the food.

As NPQ’s prior coverage said, the added sugar content of food has large implications for the nonprofit field as a whole. Given the field’s work in improving the health of Americans, particularly low-income populations that may live in food deserts and have limited access to fresh food, labels on processed foods can help families make the best decisions given the options available to them. Lastly, declining sales in high sugar foods will put pressure on the food industry to produce healthier products from which everyone can benefit.—Sheela Nimishakavi